Mahmoud Abbas: A Lone Voice in the UN Wilderness

Addressing the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) is no longer what it used to be, even for the president of the State of Palestine. The days of Yasser Arafat’s “olive branch” speech on November 13, 1974 are clearly gone. In spite of its continued support for Palestinian rights, including the right to independent statehood, the world community has changed in many and quite significant ways. This is the UN of Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu, where self-determination, nation building, and the two-state solution have become anathema.

One has to admit that much has changed in international politics since Israel occupied the rest of Palestine, namely the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza in 1967. However, the wind of change witnessed over the past 50 years seems to have skipped occupied Palestine. Suffice it to compare Arafat’s 1974 speech before the General Assembly with that delivered on September 20, 2017, by Mahmoud Abbas, current president of the Palestinian Authority. Essentially, they are the same speech, appealing for justice in Palestine, denouncing the excesses of Israeli occupation, declaring the illegality of continuing colonization of Palestinian territories by Israel, and calling for a prompt end to its occupation according to a specific schedule. Both urged the world community that time is of the essence and the opportunity for just peace should not be squandered, again.

Arafat’s conclusion in 1974 was quite dramatic. He appealed to world leaders by stating, “Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom-fighter’s gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.” Abbas’s words are much subtler but equally dramatic. He told the UNGA last Wednesday that “We cannot continue to be an authority without any authority, or to allow this occupation to continue without cost.” He warned that “We are fast approaching this point … The two-state solution is today in jeopardy.”

The Anatomy of Abbas’s Speech

This year’s speech by Mahmoud Abbas was predictable and quite comparable in its themes to previous speeches by Palestinian leaders before the UNGA. First, the address began with the customary attempt to place “the state of the conflict” with Israel in its historical context and to remind the world body of its moral and political responsibilities in securing a peaceful end of the longest military occupation in modern history. The Palestinian president brought to the attention of the world community that “twenty-four years have passed since the signing of the Oslo Accords… that set a five-year period for bringing an end to the Israeli occupation.” That offer presented the Palestinian people a hope in a forthcoming resolution, on that has since dissipated. Abbas challenged the UNGA by asking rhetorically, “What is left of this hope today?

Second, Abbas reminded his international audience that throughout this period the Palestinian side fulfilled its share of responsibilities while the Israeli side adhered to its rejection of the two-state solution. He reiterated that the Palestinians “recognized the state of Israel on the 1967 borders. But Israel’s continuous refusal to recognize these borders has put into question the mutual recognition we signed in Oslo in 1993.” Abbas accused the Israeli government of evading its responsibilities by opting for more settlements instead of pursuing a negotiated compromise with the Palestinian side “in contravention of all international conventions and the relevant resolutions on the question of Palestine.” He accused Israel of making false accusations by pretending that “there is no Palestinian partner,” and imposing what he characterized as “unreasonable, obstructive conditions.” Abbas delineated a long list of Israeli policies and practices deemed by Palestinians as contrary to international law and urged the UN to take tangible steps to end these breaches and violations by putting an end to Israel’s fifty-year-old occupation within a defined timeframe.

Third, the Palestinian president challenged the international community and held it responsible for the continued occupation of Palestine. He emphasized that “The United Nations bears a legal, political, moral and humanitarian obligation to end this occupation and enable the Palestinian people to live in freedom and prosperity in their independent state …” In a new twist, however, Abbas borrowed from Donald Trump’s political lexicon by calling for “draining the swamp” of Israel’s colonial occupation of Palestine and linked that process with the global fight against terrorism.

Fourth, in an apparent attempt to strengthen the Palestinian case, President Abbas wrapped himself with the flag of every peace initiative or proposal relevant to the Palestine problem, from the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative to current efforts discussed with President Donald Trump, including the 2003 Quartet roadmap, the French Initiative, and other proposals by Russia and China.

Fifth, every speech at the UN does include some form of warning to motivate its moribund international bureaucracy and nudge it into action. Abbas’s speech includes several warnings addressed to different constituents:

  1. He cautioned Israeli leaders against their careless policies aimed at “entrenching the occupation and colonial facts on the ground in East Jerusalem.” Their illegal unilateral annexation of the city and continued attempts to change its historic status quo to keep it permanently under Israeli political and legal control are clearly leading to a potential “violent religious conflict,” as witnessed in recent events regarding Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.
  2. The second warning was addressed to the international community, reminding it that “the status quo in the occupied territory of the state of Palestine is not sustainable.” Abbas got personal when he referred to the political impotence of his Palestinian Authority by stating that “We cannot continue to be an authority without any authority or to allow this occupation to continue without cost.” The emphasis here is on the word “cost.” Does Abbas mean that he is fast approaching the point of giving up on his life-long commitment to peaceful resistance to Israeli occupation?
  3. Abbas’s final warning to the international community referred to the expiration date of the two-state solution as the conventional option to settle the Arab-Israeli conflict for the past 24 years. Based on his experience, Mahmoud Abbas believes that “The two-state solution is today in jeopardy.” He reiterated that the Palestinian people cannot stand still and take the increased targeting by Israel of their “national, political and social existence” on their land. Under such circumstances, Abbas feels that “it is our right to search for alternatives that preserve our rights and protect our land and our people from an entrenching system of apartheid.”

President Abbas assured the UNGA that the Palestinians remain committed to the two-state solution as a strategic choice; however, he was crystal clear in his choice of words that if the two-state solution were destroyed and transformed de facto into a one-state solution with two systems––i.e. apartheid––the Palestinians would deem that a failure and would reject it outright. Abbas predicted that the Palestinian people would then “continue to struggle and demand full, equal rights for all inhabitants of historic Palestine.” “This is not a threat,” he concluded, “but a warning of the realities before us as a result of ongoing Israeli policies that are gravely undermining the two-state solution.

Abbas’s Ten Demands

In this year’s speech, President Abbas chose to summarize Palestinian demands from the international community as follows:

  1. Seek to end the Israeli occupation of the state of Palestine within a set timeframe.
  2. Stop all Israeli settlement activities in the occupied territories.
  3. Extend international protection to the people of Palestine.
  4. Require Israeli commitment to the borders of 1967.
  5. Link diplomatic recognition of Israel to the borders of 1967.
  6. End all support to the Israeli illegal settlement regime.
  7. Recognize the state of Palestine.
  8. UNSC should approve full UN membership to the state of Palestine.
  9. Continue international economic and financial support to the Palestinians.
  10. Affirming Palestinian commitment to respect human rights and international conventions, Abbas urged the UNGA to preserve the two-state solution and pursue peace between Palestinians and Israelis.

The Reaction to the Speech

Public reaction to official speeches are always in the eye of the beholder. The reaction to Abbas’s speech at the UN was predictable and swift. Reminding Abbas that “The road to peace runs through Jerusalem and Ramallah, not New York,” Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu gave Abbas a choice to make. “You can continue to stoke hatred as you did today,” said Netanyahu, or you can finally confront hatred and work with me to establish peace.” Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Danny Dannon, went a step further, stating that “Abbas chose to use the UN pulpit to represent Palestinian terror. His dangerous words are sure to lead to even more terror attacks against Israel.”

The Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) issued a brief statement critical of the speech, which they accused of bearing “the spirit of failure of the settlement and negotiations project with the Israeli occupation and beseeches the rights of the Palestinian people who aim to be freed from the occupation by all legitimate means.” “Unfortunately,” the statement continued, “Abu Mazen [Abbas] did not differentiate in his speech between the resistance of the Palestinian people as an inherent right under the occupation, and the most extreme form of terrorism exercised by the Israeli occupation….”

On the supportive side, however, Al-Quds newspaper claimed that “the Palestinian people and political factions unanimously supported Abbas.” PLO Executive Committee Member Dr. Hanan Ashrawi expressed her satisfaction with the speech, stating that “Abbas delivered a candid and comprehensive speech.” She added that “He clearly laid out the foundations for peace and stability based on international law and conventions and highlighted the consequences of not achieving a two-state solution.”

The Abbas-Trump Exchange

Prior to delivering his speech before the UNGA, Abbas held a summit meeting with US President Donald Trump. It is safe to assume that the meeting was purposely scheduled immediately before the speech to ensure that it does not include any remarks critical of Trump’s policies in the Middle East, particularly his declared intention to resuscitate Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. The meeting was well received by both sides. Trump assured his Palestinian guest that he remains committed to peace in the Middle East but needed more time to develop his proposals and bring Israel on board. The president was quoted as saying, “Peace between Israel and the Palestinians, the toughest of all. But I think we have a very, very good chance, and I certainly will devote everything within my heart and within my soul to get that deal made.”

Abbas reciprocated in his speech by endorsing Trump’s efforts despite the absence of convincing and coherent detail by the US administration. The Palestinian president listed Trump’s initiative among all other international peace efforts “which we are thankful for.” However, Abbas could not hide his frustration with statements made by US ambassador to Israel David Friedman, who referred to Israeli occupation as an “alleged occupation.” Abbas angrily concluded in his speech that “Such perceptions are totally disconnected from reality.” Americans for Peace Now (APN) called on President Trump to recall Friedman “for making statements that blatantly contradict long-held United States policy.”

Conclusion

Undoubtedly, Abbas’s speech was clear about one specific and important message dear to all Palestinians worldwide: Palestinian rights can no longer be ignored or denied with impunity. However, his adherence to the two-state solution without offering any alternatives left the Palestine cause in limbo. Abbas’s threat to reject and resist the apartheid system emerging from the demise of the two-state solution fell on deaf Israeli ears because it lacked a tangible dimension. It behooves the Palestinian side to declare a specific timetable, say the 73rd UNGA session in 2018, to end the Israeli occupation of Palestine; otherwise, the Palestinian Authority, led by Mahmoud Abbas, would resign, force Israel to assume its obligations as the “occupying power,” and demand open and democratic elections in Palestine under the supervision of the UN Security Council to decide the future of Palestine.

Khalil E. Jahshan is the Executive Director of Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Khalil Jahshan click here